RICHMOND, Va. -- We've brought you dozens of stories about the frustrations of thousands of Virginians trying to contact the Virginia Employment Commission about their unemployment benefits.
A Chesterfield woman went through that last year. And then it got a whole lot worse.
Aileen Stewart spent months trying to get the federal pandemic assistance that the VEC reached out to her to tell her she was eligible for.
She finally got her benefits, but now the VEC says she owes them twice what they gave her and once again, like hundreds of CBS6 viewers have told us, she cannot reach them.
“This right here is enough to make you sick,” said Stewart, clutching an official letter. “Seriously. It's enough to make your blood pressure go up when you're being targeted, and you don't know why. And you keep sending threatening letters, but you don't pick up that phone, to call and say, ‘Miss Stewart, you have this bill because of this, this, or that.”
But Stewart’s a long way from how her interaction with the VEC began when the former billing clerk was laid off in 2019.
Her employer did not challenge the layoff and she actually got benefits for a year until they ended in the middle of the pandemic last year.
That was when the VEC sent her a letter saying she was eligible for federal pandemic assistance. That’s right: the VEC reached out to her.
So she applied. And then waited. And waited. Months. Calling and calling, emailing, going on the website. She even traveled to an off-site VEC bureau.
“Every time I went in there, they tell me, well there's an outstanding issue,” Stewart said. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, so what's the outstanding issue?’ and they will say, ‘Well, we don't know what it is, because the deputy has to review it.’ So I said, ‘Well, can't you email her or him to see what the outstanding issue is?’ and they was like, ‘No, we can't email them; they have to get in touch with us.’”
You may have heard that people can't get through to the VEC and when they finally get an actual human, that person is not authorized to help.
While the torment of endless waiting is a familiar part of Stewart's story, after more than four months, she did get results: last November she received a lump sum of eight thousand dollars.
But then that joyous moment turned a lot darker this spring when the VEC began mailing letters to Stewart claiming she owed them $17,000.
“They are threatening me, they are saying that I owe them $17,000, it needs to be the full payment,” she said. “If it's not in, they will start proceedings by sending it to the Internal Revenue Service, and then taking out a judgment on me, and reporting it to the credit bureaus.”
Stewart says since she got the first of three letters she has gone back to the mind-numbing routine of trying to get someone at the VEC to explain why they think she owes them money.
“If you can't answer your phone, if you can't answer your emails, but then you ask that I appeal it?” Stewart said. “I did appeal it, but you did not respond back to me. I don't see how I owe you, and you don't give me an explanation as to why I owe this money, And you're threatening to mess up my credit?”
We sent VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg Stewart's information. She did not respond. That has left Stewart in a state of fear, anger and disbelief.
“You go on television and you say, ‘Oh, we, we have upped our staff. We have new numbers, you can get through,’” said Stewart. “Well, that's not true, because we're still not getting through, and you're still not answering questions.”
For more than two months now we have asked Fogg every week for a chance to speak to VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess.
Neither Fogg nor Hess has ever responded to that request.